Thru-Hiking the Colorado Trail during COVID

2020 was a rough year. After substantially planning around COVID risks, I decided thru-hiking the Colorado Trail could be done safely.

Note: this hike took place before COVID vaccines were available and during a relatively early part of pandemic

I originally planned to thru-hike the Arizona Trail (AZT) in March. However, in February our cat (Cat Stevens) came down with FIP. The treatment for FIP is a 12-week course, which meant it was unlikely I would be able to go hiking if we decided to pursue treatment. As my AZT hiking date approached, the United States entered full COVID pandemic. I decided to abandon any hope of thru-hiking for 2020, and strongly questioned the ethical choice of thru-hiking during COVID.

In August, we finally cured Cat Stevens. The COVID situation was also not as bad in some locations (Colorado). I spent substantial time modeling COVID-related risks to the community for hiking in Colorado, and I decided thru-hiking the Colorado Trail during COVID was likely to be low risk to myself and others.

The Colorado Trail in 2020, right after the first snow of the season

The Plan for Thru-Hiking during COVID

On short notice, I pulled together a schedule for the Colorado Trail. My COVID analysis provided a guideline for ensuring my hike was low risk to the community I intended to travel through. I structured the hike to create a 6 day-minimum hiking duration between points of possible exposure.

I consider any event a possible exposure event where I am inside for more than 15 minutes, or outside within close proximity of other people. To avoid possible exposure, I only had 4 resupplies. I had a strict policy to avoid hitch-hiking, and camping or walking close to other hikers. All planned resupplies were created to take substantially less than 15 minutes.

Just a breathtaking Colorado landscape

My resupply points during COVID:

  1. Copper Mountain — Friends brought me food. We were outside the entire interaction (6 days after starting)
  2. Twin Lakes — I mailed myself a package. I picked it up in under 5 minutes (2.5 days after copper)
  3. Monarch Mountain Lodge – I sent myself a package. After evaluating the pickup situation, I spent the night at the lodge. Less than 5 minutes of discussion near people inside (2 days after twin lakes, 6 days after Copper Mountain)
  4. Mono Lake Resort, contactless package pickup outside. (6 days after Monarch)

I got a hotel room for a single night at Monarch, and left in the morning. I believe I was the only guest in the lodge, and kept to my room. Given this, the COVID-related risk of getting a room for the night was not larger than the risk associated with picking up my package. Other than my stay at Monarch, I spent less than 5 minutes inside for my entire thru-hike.

First couple of days out on the Colorado Trail

Getting to and from the trail

In addition to minimizing COVID risks for my resupplies, I took numerous steps to minimize risks affiliated with contracting or spreading COVID to others when traveling to and from the trail.

Steps taken to get to the Colorado Trail

N95 masks were worn for all interactions, no matter how brief, with other humans

  1. After purchasing food and shipping it to resupply points in Colorado, I isolated myself for 14 days in Sacramento.
  2. I took a COVID test 4 days before heading to Colorado. My results were negative
  3. I rented a car, which involved under 10 minutes of interaction at the car rental shop while wearing an N95 mask.
  4. My brother, who had been isolating in Colorado, agreed that my COVID risks were low, and he was willing to drive me to the Colorado Trail trailhead.

Steps taken to get back from the Colorado Trail

I was very well isolated for my entire thru-hike, and had my last point of possible exposure on the trail at Monarch Mountain lodge. Given that this was 8 days prior to arriving in Durango, I was at very low risk of infecting others.

  1. I once-again rented a car and took it one-way from Durango to Sacramento.
  2. To get to the rental car location, I used Lyft. I wore an N95 mask, and had the driver roll down all windows in the car. This was a 25 minute trip.
  3. I rented a car at the Durango airport, and drove back to Sacramento.
I ended up getting into Durango on labor day. Literally, the only car that was available to rent was a BMW.

How much did it cost to Thru-Hike?

Given my cautions planning around COVID, I made several choices that substantially increased the cost of this hike. This included renting a car, shipping myself packages, and avoiding airplanes, hitchhiking, and public transportation. Overall, the total cost was fairly reasonable.

  • Food Costs in Sacramento: $359 (this is an overestimate)
  • UPS Costs for Shipping: $51
  • Rental car to Boulder: $76
  • Gasoline to get to Boulder: $79
  • Food Resupply and Camping in Copper: $75
  • Lodge Stay at Monarch: $121
  • Lyft to Airport: $26
  • Rental car in Durango: $496
  • Gasoline to get to Sacramento: $84
  • Food for road trip back: $76

Total Cost: $1443
Cost per Mile: $3/mile-hiked
Cost per Day: $58/day

How was the trail?

The trail was absolutely spectacular. Similar to my first thru-hike of the Colorado Trail in 2014, I was blown away by the quality of the trail. After all, it’s not every day that you have the privilege of being surrounded by sublime weather and magical experiences! Some highlights:

  • Experiencing the first snow of the season
  • Shouting gleefully at a bunch of cute Pika
  • I had a solid month of hiking where I didn’t even need to remember that COVID was a thing

I pulled together a short 5-minute video that gives a nice taste of the trail.

Additionally, I’ve sorted and categorized all my photos, which are readily available, for your viewing pleasure.

ListServ Email Updates

In addition to sending my itinerary out to folks, I also maintained a listserv that I used to send periodic updates about thru-hiking the Colorado Trail. Below is the subset of emails that I sent out during my thru-hike to keep people updated on my status. This includes various thoughts about the trail, and provided a little bit of a glimpse into my life while out on the CT.

What did I take when hiking the CT?

What did I Pack?

Due to COVID, I ended up taking a few more things than I normally would. I used a solar panel to avoid in-town stops, and add numerous N95 masks with me, as well as several surgical masks and 1 cloth mask.

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